The third of my father’s stories of serving in World War II in the RCAF (please see History 1 and 2, below), that remains uppermost in my mind, is this one:
When his squadron was in Belgium, my father and his fellow servicemen were some of the first allied soldiers to liberate one of the concentration camps that had been part of the Nazi campaign to exterminate the Jewish people, Bergen-Belsen. He told me a story about Allied soldiers unlocking the gates to the camp (which had been abandoned by its guards but left locked), and witnessing the almost starved to death people come out, fall on the ground and begin eating grass. The soldiers gave them food they had…chocolate, biscuits, etc. but they were soon stopped, as these foods were having a terrible effect.The inmates actually had to be restrained in the camp until proper food and medicine could be distributed.
The situation that my father described to me as a small boy was very accurately portrayed a few years ago in the HBO television series ‘Band of Brothers’. The shock and disbelief of the American soldiers as they enter the camp and see the survivors mirrors my Father’s even to this day palpable shock, as he thinks back on the place he witnessed over 70 years ago.
My father has kept four photographs depicting scenes in Bergen-Belsen which are very similar to those depicted in the TV series. I looked at these photos many times growing up; when I was a boy I didn’t know what to make of them, but my father explained them one day. I have the photos now. I decided that because of their value as a surviving part of the Holocaust record, I need to keep them from being lost or discarded. I haven’t decided if I will post any of the photos here; perhaps I should, but they are quite brutal.
The previous two stories (History 1 and 2) have depended upon my imagination and memory for their continued existence, but the permanence of these photos has reinforced the effect of my father’s experience in Belgium. In fact, this story has had and continues to have the most pressing effect on me. I have thought about it; here is a portion of one of the photos:
From WIRED magazine:
“McLuhan’s most powerful contributions were of this sort: “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” Our futures are always experienced and frequently determined by a past that few of us fully acknowledge or understand — including quite possibly McLuhan himself.”
I think my father’s stories have acted as some of the best education I have been fortunate enough to receive. Perhaps learning in this way is like looking backward, but looking past the mirror only forward into the future would be a lost enterprise, an uninformed leap into the unknown. It occurs to me that the best qualities of communication, including social media, can inform this forward-gaze, providing a method to turn and face the future, in between looks into the rear-view.